By Jeff Michael Vice

FARGO – Live-action comedy-drama developed by Noah Hawley, based on characters created by Joel and Ethan Coen; rated TV-MA; airs Tuesdays on FX; 60 minutes (approximately). Episode 1.3: “A Muddy Road” (original airdate, April 29, 2014). Directed by Randall Einhorn; written by Noah Hawley (9 out of 10)

The story so far: Nomadic, hired killer Lorne Malvo winds up in the frozen Northeast after crashing his vehicle into a deer. He’s left a trail of dead bodies in his wake, and not just that of the poor animal in question. Meanwhile, born loser Lester Nygaard suffers abuse – from not only his verbally demonstrative wife, Pearl, but also his childhood bully, local businessman Sam Hess. And Bemidji, Minn. police officer Molly Solverson suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of murder investigator, thanks to Malvo’s recent actions.

In this episode: Malvo turns the tables on Don Chumph, the bungling, would-be blackmailer of local supermarket kingpin and motivational speaker, Stavros Milos. Meanwhile, Lester pops in on Gina Hess, the wife of murder victim Sam Hess, and he continues to be “bothered” by the persistent Molly. Still on the murder investigation case, she finally meets Duluth police officer Gus Grimly, who comes clean about letting her prime suspect, Malvo, go during a traffic stop.

If you had any doubts whether the series could continue its run of excellence, “A Muddy Road” clears that up quite quickly. The episode both progresses the story and fills in some needed blanks, through flashbacks that show some of Malvo’s actions before he arrived in Bemidji -- before he had his ill-fated encounter with the local fauna and citizenry.

And amusingly, in the “present day” (the story is set in 2006), he confronts the dopey, bronzed Chumph (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Glenn Howerton) about his blackmail scheme. To the somewhat incompetent criminal’s surprise, Malvo doesn’t kill or threaten him. Instead, he makes him his “partner,” and then begins his own, much-better-thought-out scheme to get money from Duluth’s “supermarket king,” Milos.

However, Malvo isn’t as “invisible” as he might think. Molly has gotten a hold of some security camera footage that identifies him as the man who kidnapped an accountant (the poor shlub who was seen frozen to death in the first episode). And he’s been positively identified by Gus, who was smart enough to run the license plate number on the car Malvo was driving, which he “appropriated” from his unwitting, murder-scheme “partner,” Lester.

Speaking of the milquetoast insurance agent, he pays Hess’s widow a visit, primarily to find out if she, or anyone else, has a clue that he was involved in the killing. However, the alluring, gold-digging widow (Kate Walsh, never better) tries to seduce him, only to be interrupted by the actions of her overly aggressive sons, Mickey and Moe (scene stealers Atticus Dean Mitchell and Liam Green). But he’s grateful for another visit from Molly, later, when Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench come to his office to discuss what he knew about the well-connected late businessman Hess.

It’s a marvel, seeing how the series bounces back and forth between moments of deadpan humor to involving character drama (particularly the scenes between Colin Hanks’ well-meaning Gus and his wise-for-her-age daughter, played by Joey King) to completely unsettling moments of violence (again, it’s Thornton’s spellbinding Malvo doing most of them).

Emmy winning television director Randall Einhorn (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Nurse Jackie”) helmed the episode, again written by executive producer/show runner Noah Hawley. The script contains some of the sharpest writing on television currently, and it again features many memorable quips and line exchanges, the bulk of them coming from Malvo. The better ones include:

“You got bronzer … on your blackmail note.” (Lorne Malvo)

“You couldn’t find a smaller room for us to talk in?” (Malvo)

“I’m confused.” “It’s OK, I’m not.” (Don Chumph, then Malvo)

“They sure got a lot of energy, don’t they?” “They’re wolves.” (Lester Nygaard, then Gina Hess)

“Just pretend I’m a 300-pound, nine-year-old who can’t finish a sentence.” (Malvo)

“It’s already dog eat dog, friend. I’m not sure how much worse a bunch of zombies could do.” (Malvo)

“Eat a turd is my response.” (Stavros Milos)

“You Greek Orthodox?” “Why, because I’m Greek?” (Malvo, then Milos)

“I gotta say, I’m super-ticked here.” (Bill Olson)

“He’s my boss.” “Kind of a prick?” “That’s the one.” (Gus Grimly, then Lou Solverson, then Grimly again)

Overall rating: 9 out of 10

CAST:

The regular characters: Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo), Allison Tolman (Molly Solverson), Martin Freeman (Lester Nygaard), Colin Hanks (Gus Grimly), Bob Odenkirk (Bill Olson) and Keith Carradine (Lou Solverson)

Guest stars: Adam Goldberg (Mr. Numbers), Russell Harvard (Mr. Wrench), Glenn Howerton (Don Chumph), Joey King (Greta Grimly), Oliver Platt (Stavros Milos) and Kate Walsh (Gina Hess)

You can read Jeff Michael Vice, aka Jerk-bot, at Cinephiled (www.cinephiled.com),where he writes movie reviews and film-related articles. He can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff), and be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com).

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Tags: television reviews , FX Networks , Coen brothers , Fargo , Billy Bob Thornton